Sanzaar laments lost 'golden opportunity' as Nations Championship plans dropped
By Simon Ward
World Rugby, rugby union’s international governing body, has ditched plans for a global Nations Championship that would have pitted teams from both hemispheres against each other across the season, citing a lack of support.
The proposal had been drawn up to give greater context to national team matches, with the launch in 2022 of a top division of 12 countries that would have played each other once in a calendar year, either in Europe’s Six Nations, the southern hemisphere’s Rugby Championship, or in the summer and autumn test windows, with the top two teams meeting in a showpiece final.
There would also have been financial incentives, with World Rugby citing a “game-changing” guarantee of £6.1 billion ($7.7 billion) over 12 years from Infront, the international sports marketing agency owned by China’s Wanda Group, and the opportunity to “develop new markets for the betterment of all.”
However, there were concerns in some northern hemisphere countries over the scheduling and promotion and relegation to and from a second division, and the necessary unanimous support from the 10 leading national rugby unions was not forthcoming by yesterday’s deadline.
The development has come as a particular disappointment to Sanzaar, the body that represents the unions of South Africa, Australia, New Zealand and Argentina, which today lamented the loss of a "golden opportunity."
However, the rejection of the Nations Championship plans is a boost for the prospects of other schemes, including those involving IMG, the international sports agency, and CVC, the private equity firm, centred on the Six Nations.
In a statement on Wednesday evening, World Rugby said: “Despite strong progress in collaboration with unions, competition owners and international rugby players, including full engagement on the detailed process of financial due diligence, a lack of consensus on key issues, particularly the timing and format of promotion and relegation, left World Rugby with no alternative but to discontinue the project.”
Last month, the governing body had increased the value of its offer to create the Nations Championship to more than £6 billion, while Six Nations Ltd, the organiser of that competition, agreed to a process of due diligence.
However, there were too many obstacles to overcome, and World Rugby will now look at other means of developing the international game, including the option of expanding the quadrennial Rugby World Cup from 20 to 24 teams in 2027.
It said Infront and parent company Wanda Sports “remain fully committed to World Rugby’s objectives.”
In a statement, World Rugby president Bill Beaumont said: “World Rugby undertook this important project with the best interests of the global game at heart in line with our vision to grow the sport as a game for all. While we are naturally disappointed that a unanimous position on the Nations Championship could not be achieved among our unions, we remain fully committed to exploring alternative ways to enhance the meaning, value and opportunity of international rugby for the betterment of all unions.
“This includes our continued commitment to competition and investment opportunities for emerging nations to increase the competitiveness of the international game with a view to possible Rugby World Cup expansion in 2027. I would like to thank all stakeholders for their detailed consideration and engagement, World Rugby’s executive team for their hard work and Infront for their full and ongoing support of our vision to grow rugby’s global footprint.”
Sanzaar said that despite reservations "over elements of what was presented," all four of its members, which do not have the revenue streams of the likes of England and France, had given their support to the now-abandoned proposal.
In a statement, Sanzaar chairman Brent Impey said: "The Nations Championship was a golden opportunity to grow the game internationally but is seemingly lost. SANZAAR remains convinced that such a revamped international calendar is the right course of action supported by professional cross-border competitions such as Super Rugby and the various European premierships.”
The Six Nations will now weigh up the other offers on the table, including the £1.75-billion investment proposal from IMG, known as Project Light, which goes beyond the European competition itself to include all of the world’s leading rugby nations, albeit a competition format is yet to be discussed.
The other plan under consideration by the Six Nations unions (England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales, France and Italy), in which they stand to profit to the tune of more than £100 million each, comes from a bid by CVC to take a 30-per-cent stake in the championship, meaning the unions would have to surrender their existing full control over the competition.
Last month, Lagardère, the France-based media giant, denied media reports it had submitted a multi-million-pound bid for a role in commercialising the rights to the Six Nations.